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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Baptist Pharisees and the Nones (1 of 3)

     When I taught Mathematics at a very conservative classical school in Madison, MS, I was constantly being reminded that our mission as a faculty was to nurture disciples rather than create little Pharisees. The struggle was between the imposition of context-less rules to be followed in the name of Christian decency and the desire for every student to submit to the living Spirit of God in daily life.
     I'm pleased to say that at least some of our students survived that daily struggle and ended their studies as well-adjusted young men and women who could actually think and act in accordance with the Spirit without marching to the beat of the hyper-conservative social teaching of the school. Many, however, became the very legalistic, Pharisaical people we didn't want them to become. They demonstrated haughtiness, were caustically judgmental, and saw every action taken by the "world" as an affront to their pre-determined worldview and Christian sensibilities.
     Although the issues related to running a Christian school, let alone one that pretends to be a classical school, are much broader and deeper than a single desire to make better disciples, the local congregation is, at its heart, concerned with recruiting, shaping, and sending disciples into the world. The temptation to make Pharisees rather than disciples is as strong and real in the local congregation as it is in any school.
    What do I mean by "Pharisees?" Certainly the local church is not forming people to adhere to the ancient customs of the Jewish religio-political faction known as the Pharisees. This group played in constant opposition to Jesus and the disciples following him. The Pharisees churned out in churches today are not reverting to a Jewish hyper-legalism; instead the disciples we create today carry the attitudes and character of 1st-century Pharisees while wrapped in the trappings of Evangelical Christianity.
     I would like this brief essay to serve as the beginning of a three-part posting on the nature of discipleship in Baptist life, especially in the South. The remainder of this post will be a review of the work that sparked my interest in the subject, then to entries to follow on the nature of the local church's discipleship programs and my own vision of a new (and old) framework of disciple making, respectively.

Review of "Defeating Pharisaism" by Gary Tyra
Tyra, Gary. Defeating Pharisaism. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Paternoster, 2009.

     Tyra, a Pentecostal minister and professor of Biblical and Practical Theology, has noticed that Evangelical churches have abandoned the principles of disciple-making that he believes to be the historical, authentic methods in favor of something else. The loss of effective discipling strategies has left a vacuum in the church that has been filled with what Tyra calls a modern-day "pharisaism." It is not that the church has intentionally turned to programs, strategies or ministries that form legalistic, separatist disciples; rather the local church has opted for less-demanding and less-transformative discipleship ministries that leave the people of the congregation largely to their own spiritual devices.
     Tyra identifies several characteristics that define the modern (as well as the ancient) Pharisee:
Legalism is the belief that our righteousness before God is earned rather than received as a gift. Dogmatism refers to an arrogant, stubborn assertion of opinion of belief. Sociological pugilism is a tendency toward being confrontational, combative, adversarial, and hostile in the way one relates to those not a part of the in-group or clique. Judgmentalism is a willingness to criticize and condemn those who approach the religious life differently than we do. Separatism is the felt need to separate ourselves from anyone who does not practice a piety similar to our own...Trivialism is the tendency to focus on minor, relatively unimportant issues while ignoring the truly consequential ones. Hypocrisy is saying one thing while consciously doing another, pretending to be more spiritually mature than we really are (5). 
     Tyra's list of characteristics common to ancient and modern pharisaism is broad, but there is a weakness in his use of legalism. While the modern pharisee certainly uses the Bible in such a way as to be legalistic, and while it is most certainly true that Evangelicals in the South especially have crafted a culture around the legalistic, literalistic interpretation of the Scriptures, Tyra must more clearly parse the differences between the ancient and modern understanding of righteousness and "earning" God's favor. One thing that Evangelicalism has done well since the Reformation has been to teach that salvation is a gift of God not earned, but rather freely given and accepted. When Tyra connects the legalistic interpretation of the Torah popular among the ancient Pharisees with the modern legalistic interpretation of the Scriptures something important gets lost.
     Tyra himself points out that "Some Pharisees tended to believe that a right relationship with God could be achieved and maintained by mere human effort and by isolating themselves from everyone who did not share their commitment to ritual purity" (48). This legalism was motivated by a desire to not offend God in any way, thus avoiding another occupation and exile in a specific, Temple-based religion context. The modern "Christian Pharisee" has no such illusions of works-based salvation or righteousness. Instead, Tyra claims that "the legalism of the Christian Pharisee ironically produces spiritual insecurity rather than peace and joy and spiritual fatigue rather than a divine sense of empowerment" (67). The very real legalism of the modern Christian Pharisee is not a parallel to the ancient Pharisaical belief that there is a direct correlation between the purity of Israel and God's blessings and judgements upon the same.

     Tyra's use of the ancient Pharisees as the antagonists in Matthew's gospel is excellent, and is backed up by sound scholarship and his own research. By assuming the tension between the disciples of Jesus and the adherents to the strict code of conduct of the Pharisees, Tyra has reinforced the "historical model" hypothesis of Michael Wilkins (see his "The Concept of Disciple in Matthew's Gospel"). If the disciples are held up as the struggling-to-understand followers of a new Way, the Pharisees are portrayed as an anti-model, a foil of the disciples in every way.
     Herein there is another distinction that must be made. The Pharisees that are caricatured in Matthew's gospel are not functioning from within the Jesus camp. Inasmuch as the disciples acted in legalistic, separatistic ways while they followed Jesus they could be considered the first "modern" Pharisees. The people within modern Evangelical churches who are acting in Pharisaical ways are doing so from within the Jesus camp, most of whom would readily testify to their own personal encounter with the risen Christ as the starting point for much of what they believe. While Tyra does a sound job of contrasting the "crowds" with the Pharisees, the inclusion of the Twelve and any mention of those moving closer to the Jesus Way are absent. We are left to believe that the option was either the Pharisaical interpretation of Judaism or a seat among the crowds following Jesus and hearing his teachings. It would have been more appropriate to at least connect the pharisaical tendencies among the first disciples with those patterns of life found in authentic Pharisees rather than relying on the "good guys/ bad guys" contrast between the teachers of the Law and the crowds.

     After the thick chapters on the Sermon on the Mount, its place within Matthew's cannon, and the nature of Matthew's gospel in total, Tyra attempts to demonstrate how discipleship needs to be transformed into something more authentic in the local church. By the time I arrived at these chapters, I was worked into a froth of agreement and excitement, ready for the author to make bold statements about the dearth of biblical and theological knowledge among the laity in our churches, and especially for him to lay the blame for such erosion at the feet of our modern, business-oriented approach to making disciples.

He blew it.

     Tyra introduces the third section of Defeating Pharisaism, the section most aimed at application and the modern Evangelical congregation, this way:
During the heyday of the church growth movement, when churches were encouraged to imitate the structures and practices of successful secular corporations, we pastors were advised to continually ask ourselves two key questions: (1) What business are we in? and (2) How's business? Some excesses surely occurred; and it is appropriate, I believe, for pastors to rethink the goal of trying to run their churches as if they were just another enterprise dotting the commercial landscape. And yet it also seems to me that, aside from the "business" rhetoric utilized, these two questions - the questions of purpose and efficiency - remain valid...Throughout this book I have been insisting that a careful reading of the first Gospel reveals that Jesus took the "business" of disciple-making very seriously and that leaders of contemporary evangelical churches should do likewise (193-194). 
     The church growth movement is in no small way the cause of the swelling numbers of shallow disciples in Evangelical churches. By emphasizing growth rather than depth the pastors who have come before my generation have bequeathed congregations that have no identity other than their own self-sustenance and no missional desire other than the one that brings more people in the door and feeds the cycle of growth anew. Further, the "business rhetoric" used in the local congregation is antithetical to the case for slow, personal, deep discipleship Tyra made in previous chapters. The inclusion of "business" in the disciple-making paradigm that Tyra present in later chapters does not fit. At no point does the author mention the business of making disciples that in any way relates to the 20th century numbers game that became the ethos of Evangelical ministry. It appears that the inclusion of this language, even in the third section's introduction, is a poorly-chosen addition to the otherwise masterful argument Tyra makes in modeling the local church's disciple-making strategy on the Sermon on the Mount.

     I was disappointed by the inclusion of the church growth language in the application section of Defeating Pharisaism, but not so much that I discounted what is otherwise an excellent work for the scholarly pastor who is looking for a way to embrace the ancient/future desires among our Evangelical congregants to do deeper in their discipleship and spiritual formation.
     I recommend pastors in Southern Evangelical churches read Defeating Pharisaism. Tyra's analysis of the Sermon on the Mount makes the work well worth the read, and if a pastor can apply such thinking to the practice of making disciples in their local congregation, then all the better. Tyra's primary recommendation for the re-invigoration of disciple-making is that "what is ultimately needed is not simply a specific disciple-making experience (no matter how powerful) but a disciple-making environment - an ethos that makes it easy for authentic Christianity to thrive while choking the life out of any Christian Pharisaism present in the congregation (220). Tyra's is not a call to a new "discipleship training" program or an adult RAs or GAs; it is a call to make the nature of the congregation one that makes deeply faithful disciples who increasingly walk with God and demonstrate a love for others. The rest of the church's ministries surely hang on our ability to foster such an environment.